Documenting life in crisp, haunting fractions of a second—the longest she can get it to Hold Still (Little, Brown, $32), Sally Mann has photographed everything from birth—a camera attended her second daughter’s delivery—to death, with her unflinching series of decomposing human remains at the University of Tennessee’s “body farm.” In between Mann has been busy with love and family, parenthood’s joys and fears, matters of race, art, horses, and dogs. Her memoir is a rich collage of her own and her family’s photos, news clippings, report cards, suicide and other notes, artifacts that do more than merely illustrate her powerful narratives. Mann is a riveting storyteller with a novelist’s sense of pacing, and the fine artist’s deft handling of image and tone. She has a special affinity for place, especially Southern places, from which she coaxes the rare “moments of visual revelation.” No slouch as a portraitist, Mann lets a terrific empathy shine through both her words and her pictures; driven to find out what makes people who they are, she also reveals herself, and while you’ll find her a restless, inquiring, uncompromising woman, she claims only to be “a regular person doggedly making ordinary art.”
Since the publication last summer of his new book, Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, $24), Ta-Nehisi Coates has been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and the 2015 National Book Award for nonfiction. Toni Morrison has called him “the next James Baldwin.” And, to be sure, few writers have so quickly pricked the conscience of a nation, and done so with such fierce urgency. Written as a letter to his teenage son, the book is part memoir, part polemic, and mostly Coates’s deeply personal attempt to explain the racial divide in America in the context of history, politics, and his own experiences growing up in an African-American family in Baltimore, attending Howard University, and becoming a writer and journalist. Fear as a root of black anger is a major theme of the book, and Coates’s language is both poetic and painful. His anguish over the death of a college friend killed by police after being misidentified as a crime suspect is more than a cautionary tale. And in the end, whether you agree with Coates or not, the book and its message will stay with you long after you’ve turned the final page.
Veteran journalist Dale Russakoff is an exceptional reporter and writer, and both skills are on full display in her excellent book, The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27). First excerpted in The New Yorker, the book is a masterful exposition of how politics, money, and egos—along with entrenched interests and lofty intentions—collided in a highly-publicized attempt to fix the deteriorating public school system in Newark, New Jersey. Over four years of reporting, Russakoff was granted extraordinary access to the lead characters in the story: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie; then Newark Mayor (and now U.S. Senator) Cory Booker; and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who pledged $100 million to improve Newark’s schools. But the author also immersed herself in the schools, visiting classrooms, getting to know teachers, and following students, most of them low-income, as the unlikely trio of Christie, Booker, and Zuckerberg’s launched what became a hugely misguided effort to rescue public education in America by making Newark a national model of reform